By Aaron Lorenzo

As the threat of bioterrorism hangs in the air, the federal government is encouraging the private and academic sectors to continue research on solutions to combat repercussions of chemical or biological attacks.

With that in mind, the Department of Health and Human Services last week detailed seven new initiatives to accelerate bioterrorism research.

¿People¿s concerns are heightened, and as a result of that, we also really have been able to identify a lot of what we don¿t know about a lot of these organisms,¿ said Carole Heilman, the director of the division of microbiology and infectious diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). ¿A lot of people who are working on, for example, complementary systems, could contribute to understanding of these organisms.¿

Recent submissions of scientific proposals to the NIAID, an arm of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), prompted the thinking behind these new programs.

¿Scientifically, the timing is there for the ability to really move pretty quickly, and to be able to answer some fundamental questions that have just been eluded for lack of research or lack of interest,¿ Heilman said. ¿That was really, in large part, the motivation about these initiatives that we are eliciting.¿

The NIAID is fielding calls from companies and academics interested in being a part of the various initiatives.

¿One of the important ways that we often encourage people is to give us a call,¿ Heilman said. ¿We can give you some general guidelines about the NIH process if you¿re new to it. We can help explain a little bit more about what some things may indeed mean. Or if there is something that you¿re looking for in terms of a potential collaboration, we can help lead you to somebody that may be a good marriage.¿

The initiatives will fund research on what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as Category A biological diseases, including anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox, tularemia and viral hemorrhagic fevers.

Specifically, the Anthrax Vaccine Contract is designed to accelerate development of new vaccines.

¿That is something we have been working on for a number of years, trying to get an alternative anthrax vaccine,¿ Heilman said. ¿The current anthrax vaccine that is available has a regimen that requires six vaccine doses over an 18-month period. And that works perfectly if you are in a very confined arena and you know you are going into a situation in which the threat of bioterrorism may be real. And so [in] a military situation, that works. But in the situations that we have seen recently, it would have been nice to be able to have had an alternative strategy to broad-based use of antibiotics. And it would have perhaps given a little bit more comfort to people who are on the periphery of concern with respect to potential for anthrax infection.¿

NIAID has designated the Science Applications International Corporation to solicit and act as the main contact point for information. In particular, the NIAID is interested in a recombinant protective antigen vaccine.

The Rapid Response Grant Program on Bioterrorism-Related Research will evaluate and fund new applications in five to six months after receipt, rather than the usual nine or 10 months. This program is aimed at new prevention strategies and treatments, as well as improved diagnostics. It also will fund basic research that provides a better understanding of the disease-causing organisms, particularly information taken from the genomes of these organisms.

The Partnerships for Novel Therapeutic, Diagnostic, and Vector Control Strategies in Infectious Diseases is for work on new drug development and better diagnostics through partnerships among government, academia, and the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.

A set of Exploratory and Developmental Grants apply the latest genetic, imaging and computer technology to currently funded research on infectious diseases, especially those caused by Category A agents of bioterrorism. With these grants, investigators can purchase new equipment or collaborate with researchers in possession of needed equipment and expertise.

The Small Business Program on Bioterrorism-Related Research is a one-time solicitation of applications for research on agents of bioterrorism. This program is part of the already-established small business grant program, but the administrative and review process will be streamlined.

The U.S.-based Collaboration in Emerging Viral and Prion Diseases is designed to establish multidisciplinary research units that will investigate viral and viral-like diseases. These units will quickly study threats from emerging and re-emerging viruses and provide needed information about them.

The NIAID Investigator-Initiated Small Research Grants will fund specific, well-defined projects that can be completed in two years or less. This program allows individual investigators to take advantage of unexpected research opportunities and to follow promising new leads.

¿The people that we tend to deal with, in general, are companies that have three broad interests,¿ Heilman said. ¿One of the areas is diagnosis/detection. There are a lot of calls that we¿re getting from companies that have interest in adapting some of their ideas or detection models toward smallpox, anthrax or any of the Category A. So there¿s a lot of adaptation of detection and diagnostics.

¿The second and third sectors that we¿re seeing are in vaccines and therapeutics. In the vaccine arena, there are a lot of small companies with proprietary adjuvants and/or platform technology that once again they see as any of these organisms fitting into their platform technology. We¿re discussing a lot of things with those people in terms of who they may want to contact, who may have the right kinds of genes to express.

¿In the general area of therapeutics, we¿re seeing a lot of people who have either screening capabilities or may have alternative drug regimens . . . being able to get more categories and classes of drugs.¿

The federal government is not shy about funding these programs. During fiscal year 2001, $47 million was allocated to the NIH for bioterrorism research, with $36 million used by the NIAID. In the proposed fiscal year 2002 budget, submitted before Sept. 11, President George W. Bush stepped those figures up to $93 million to the NIH for bioterrorism research, with $81.6 million earmarked for the NIAID. The budget has yet to be ratified, though.

¿There are so many bills floating through Congress about changing all of these things,¿ Heilman said. ¿Until the House and Senate and president agree, none of us are going to know what our budget is going to look like. I think we¿re pretty sure that we probably have that to work with, because the president¿s budget, at least before Sept. 11, didn¿t seem to be a problem. And what we¿re hearing is adding more money, not taking money away from us.¿

That would seem to equal plenty of funding, to go with plenty of interest, for the NIAID and its partners to continue with these new initiatives.